Caine returns for Branagh's take on a British classic

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The Independent Culture

When Kenneth Branagh decided to attempt a modern version of a cult classic, he knew he'd need much more than an all-star cast to avoid the usual charge facing remakes; that they are just pale imitations of the originals. So he drafted in Harold Pinter as scriptwriter.

Add the acting talent of Michael Caine, Jude Law and Branagh's own directorial prowess and you have a recipe for a ground-breaking cinematic adventure that has the critics at the Venice Film festival gushing with praise and speculating that Sleuth may well land the coveted Golden Lion award.

Branagh himself heaped praise on his scriptwriter yesterday, claiming that Pinter had added further shades of darkness and psychological menace than that seen in the original, written by Anthony Shaffer. That film also starred Michael Caine, but in the role now taken by Law.

Indeed Pinter's renowned skill as a writer for stage is what Branagh appears to have harnessed for a storyline that was a play before it earned Oscar nominations for Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in 1972.

The modern reworking of Sleuth, screened for the first time at Venice, sees Caine take the old Olivier lead role for the story that focuses on Andrew Wyke, a wealthy writer of detective novels who arranges to meet the owner of a chain of hairdressing salons (now played by Law) who is having an affair with his wife, Marguerite. A series of explosive psychological "games" reach a devastating crescendo at the end.

Branagh said the film's script had been rewritten by Pinter, who had not seen the original, and that the new version emphasised different elements of the plot.

"I did not have an issue revisiting a work whose kernel is timeless and universal," said the director. "The 1972 film was much more concerned with the game between these two men and the ability of the writer, while this is much more about the rivalry of two men for one woman. It is a primal conflict." And Venice appears to agree, as Sleuth is vying for the Golden Lion as one of four British films on the selection list including the festival's opening film, Atonement.

Just days ago Caine spoke of the dangers of remaking successful films, but yesterday he explained why he had become involved in the new Sleuth. "This is not a remake. I certainly would never have done a straightforward remake of Sleuth. There is a completely different take on the whole thing. Harold Pinter's script is much more severe and he has reworked if after reading the original play. Larry's [Olivier] character was a dangerous eccentric and I was trying to figure out how far I could go on this," he said.

"Kenneth showed me a book which mentioned 'morbid jealousy' in which people kill and go off their rocker through jealously," he said.

The contemporary rendition delves further into the homosexual undercurrents between the two characters and at one point, Law kisses Caine.

Jude Law, who previously played the lead role in the modern – and critically panned – adaptation of the Michael Caine classic, Alfie, said Caine was one of his "acting heroes" and admitted he had not been content with his performance in the 2004 remake. "The original [of Alfie] was such a successful piece of work. From my experience, it did not turn out the way I wanted it to," admitted Law. "But part of embarking on a creative journey is to sometimes fall flat, but it can also lead to a triumph, which I think it has in this case."